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The Need to Manage Logistics in the Fire Service

By David Cain, Deputy Chief of Operations (Ret.), Boulder, CO (ret)

As I reflect on my work days and all the things I needed to do, I realize that managing logistical support was one of my most important tasks. Why? It speaks to the state of operational readiness. Our firefighters depend on their equipment to be as ready as they are when they are called upon. We, as chiefs, need to provide the best equipment possible if we expect firefighters to do a dangerous job.

Michael Durant, the pilot who survived in Blackhawk Down, said it best. Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Colorado, Durant said, “Never ask someone to do a dangerous job without full support for the mission.” Firefighters need that support.

A master mechanic recently visited an unnamed fire department, and discovered some glaring problems that required taking six frontline rigs, a brush truck, and two aid units out of service. The loss of this amount of equipment simultaneously can be operationally devastating to a department. But in hindsight, it is nothing compared to the potential issues of running inoperable equipment. The mechanic simply took his flashlight out, got under the trucks, and found broken springs, a loose steering column, and bad universal joints. This is what caused the need to down the equipment. This is only one account, but there are many. Are you thoroughly checking your apparatus and equipment?

Environment of Compliance or Complacency?
Each department should have a way to track and check its assets. A comprehensive approach to logistical management can save money, time, and life expectancy of equipment. Accountability is crucial. We cannot afford complacency when it comes to readiness. Some of the bigger departments may have a chief, captain, or lieutenant in charge of logistics, but anyone can assume this role with the correct tools and understanding. Absent an automated tracking system, most agencies resort to a paper-based system. Because the consequences are so high, it’s important to be thorough, accurate, timely, and use technology. Paper systems are no longer the standard.

As deputy chief of operations, I was hard pressed to retrieve information quickly to make long-term logistical plans. Our paper-based system continually challenged me to find data. To say the least, it was scattered. Even the very simple task of doing a daily check and sending information to fleet for repairs was an uncertain process. All of our checks were on paper and stored in files that ended up in a station basement. Without access to the reports, trends could not be easily tracked; costs could not be ascertained, and I could not detect ongoing issues with a single piece of equipment.

Our department used the proven ICS model to support operations and manage emergency responses to incidents. Absent an automated tracking system, the ICS model may be a starting point of getting operationally/logistically organized. There are many factors to managing and tracking department apparatus and equipment that have planning, financial, logistical, and operational components. It makes sense to use this model as a starting point. 

What Should You Be Tracking?
Vehicle checks: include all vehicles in fleet and equipment on board each vehicle.

  • Front-line
  • Reserves
  • Medic units
  • Support vehicles
  • Ladder/hose/pump testing
  • Equipment and inventories

Station checks: All supplies provided by the agency

  • Supplies
  • Chore schedule
  • Specialty equipment
  • EMS inventories
  • Building maintenance

PPE tracking

  • Inspections, cleaning, repairs
  • Replacement schedule for all gear including helmets, hoods, and gloves
  • Full history from purchase to retirement
  • Expiration date alerts

SCBA tracking

  • Inspection, repair, and replacement for every pack, cylinder, mask, and regulator
  • Full history from purchase to retirement
  • Expiration date for hydro testing

Communication device tracking

  • Inventory of all MDTs/MDCs, handhelds, tablets, phones, and batteries
  • Schedule of upgrades and software adjustments

Be creative with how you use the ICS structure to manage logistics. Nothing is set in stone. The list may not be complete as many other specialty units need the same attention. This would include wildland, hazmat, USAR, technical rescue and others.

One critical factor that needs to be tracked is expiration dates and schedules. Timelines must be determined for replacing these items. Costs associated with this must be determined well in advance of the expiration dates. Schedules for pump testing, hose testing, ladder testing and other tasks must be in place. Paper systems are inadequate in this area. Spreadsheets are better than the paper/clipboard tracking system, but none of these are as effective as using technologies to manage the tracking, scheduling, and financial impacts of the equipment. I have talked to hundreds of fire department personnel who track the checks and tasks via paper, and they all agree it is inefficient. Important information about equipment sometimes gets missed. The goal of every department should be to streamline this process and save time and money. Cloud-based systems eliminate waste and increase the overall efficiency of a fire department.

Work towards getting and then keeping your department compliant to NFPA standards by utilizing cloud technology to manage everything that needs a check. From the simple daily apparatus and equipment checks, to the long-term tracking of bunker gear, breathing apparatus, and truck replacement, the cloud can make it happen. One log in, one password, and you can see the status of your assets anywhere, at any time.

DAVID CAIN is a retired deputy chief with the Boulder (CO) Fire Department, where he served for 34 years. He works as a consultant for PSTrax.com, a technology service that helps fire departments across the country automate their apparatus, equipment and inventory checks.

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